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You have a steady job, but when it comes to paying the bills, you feel like you’re living paycheck to paycheck — what’s up with that?

“I think there are a lot of people out there who feel that way,” said Kendra Hudson, a certified financial planner at Woodward Advisors in North Carolina. “It’s true — they are living paycheck to paycheck. Part of the problem, I think, is people’s expectation level for the lifestyle that they want to have is a lot of time out of line with the actual paycheck they bring in the door.”

Tempering your expectations is a part of a good budget, but actually having a budget in the first place often helps resolve the “Why don’t I have any money?” issue.

Follow the Money

If you feel like you’re constantly scrambling to meet your financial obligations and have nothing left to save, chances are you’re not tracking your spending. Once you keep a detailed account of where you spend your hard-earned dollars, it will be easy to identify those areas that get a lot more of your paycheck than they should.

A lot of people don’t like budgeting, but that’s not a good reason to avoid it. There are so many resources available online — for free — that help you organize your finances, whether that’s using a third-party budgeting program or spreadsheet templates that give you a good starting point for doing it yourself.

Usually, when people start budgeting, they instinctively reduce overspending, because they can make more informed purchases every day.

Still, keeping a spreadsheet won’t relieve financial stress if you’re living beyond your means. Hudson recalled a time she went to a private school to help teachers with their finances, and she said it was difficult to tell people they had to change their lifestyle expectations if they wanted to avoid debt and retire.

“I just had to say to some of them, ‘Look, you only make $40,000 a year. You just can’t afford to do some of these things,'” Hudson said. “Your friends, stuff we see on TV and in magazines — it gives the illusion that everyone can afford these things, when in reality they can’t. People need to be saving for retirement and paying off student loans.”

Pay Yourself First

Eric Roberge, a CFP in Massachusetts and founder of Beyond Your Hammock, said he gets the “Why do I feel broke?” question all the time.

“I enjoy these conversations, because a lot of times, it’s not what it seems,” he said. “They spend all the rest of their money, and at the end of the month they turn around and say, ‘Oh man, I did it again. I have nothing to save.'”

Instead, he suggests, people should set up automatic transfers to their savings and retirement accounts and determine their budgets with the remaining portion of their monthly incomes. Once you deduct financial obligations like student loan payments, rent and other bills, that’s the money you really have to spend.

“It’s amazing what happens when you don’t see extra money in your checking account,” Roberge said.

He suggests identifying the two or three things that are really important to you that you’re not doing, whether that’s saving enough for retirement, taking trips, setting aside money for the kids’ college funds or paying down debt, and go back to the monthly budget to see where you can make room.

That’s not to say cutting back is easy — it usually isn’t, but it’s crucial to prioritize needs over wants if you want to reach your goals.

Keeping your credit in good shape can also help reduce what you do spend on loans over time, since good credit gives you access to lower interest rates. Checking your credit reports at least once a year (you can do this for free through AnnualCreditReport.com) and checking your credit scores (which you can do for free through Credit.com every month) can keep you aware of your standing. This can encourage you to reduce your debt and make your payments on time in order to build and maintain good credit so that you have it when you need it.

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